What’s Next? Locusts?

September 16, 2011

As Congress recessed in August, overworked staffers breathed a sigh of relief, anxiously awaiting some well-deserved peace and quiet.

Then the earth shook…literally.  And the earthquake that rocked DC was followed by a damaging hurricane, which was followed by an entire week of non-stop rain and flooding from a tropical storm.

Then Congress came back to town and the peace and quiet was over.

Few lawmakers were actually in town to see firsthand Mother Nature’s wrath, which has reigned down on the rest of the country for much of the year destroying crops, rural economies, and in some cases, lives.

But legislators got an earful this week about the weather as the men and women charged with helping farmers pick up the pieces after one of the toughest years on record descended on Capitol Hill.

Ruth Gerdes of Auburn, Neb.  was among the crop insurance agents who told personal stories of natural disaster and how the farm bill helps growers weather the storm.

“If we do not restore some common sense in the agricultural budget debate, we will go down the same road as the auto and other troubled industries,” she said.  “Crop insurance is the financial underpinning that prevents the rural economy from suffering a vicious fate…we cannot cripple something so vital to the agricultural economy.”

Gerdes, who was in town with the Crop Insurance Professionals Association points to one farmer as a prime example of how important strong farm policies are and why they should be spared additional cuts from the budget axe.

Mike Woltemath is a fourth-generation Iowa producer who made a huge sacrifice for his neighbors earlier this year when flooding ravaged the Midwest.  Woltemath handed over part of his farm to help build up a levee to stop rushing water from destroying the town.

He lost about 80 percent of his land, equipment, and buildings.  But Mike says he was one of the lucky ones.  “My father lost everything.”

Fortunately, insurance policies are helping Mike, his father, and other flood ravaged farmers recover.  But these policies wouldn’t be possible without some government help, and Gerdes noted that the more than $12 billion cut from crop insurance since 2008 makes administering the policies more difficult.

All told, agriculture has had more than $15 billion taken in the past six years, making it one of the only industries to have already sacrificed in the name of deficit reduction.   And additional cuts are expected this year, which is amazing since agriculture represents a mere one-quarter of 1 percent of federal spending.

Those sacrifices will be felt in the Southwest this year, too, explained Ronnie Holt, a Texas-based agent who is CIPA’s president.  Although in West Texas and Oklahoma, it’s not floods causing the problem, it’s extreme drought and now wildfires.

“The Texas panhandle has seen little to no rain since October of last year,” Holt said.  “It’s the driest period in the state’s history, and no farmer has been spared; this will be a crop insurance year for the Lone Star state.”

Holt and Gerdes are not alone.  Agents on the East Coast took a break from hurricane duty to be in town.  Southern agents told tales of remarkable freezes this year.  Dakotans carried messages from angry farmers unable to plant crops at all because of heavy, continuous rains.

It seems every part of the country has been touched by damage.  And now, farmers from coast to coast are left to wonder whether Congress will leave strong policies in place to help deal with similar situations in future years.